Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Film critics battle over "Inglorious Bastards"*.

Daniel Mendelsohn has written a review of the latest Quentin Tarantino-directed film, "Inglorious Bastards", that seems to be attracting some criticism. The film is about a team of Jewish-American soldiers who are infilitrated behind the German front lines of World War II to commit attacks, usually extremly sadistic in execution, against as many Nazis as possible. Mendelsohn comes to the following moral conclusion about the film:

Tarantino, the master of the obsessively paced revenge flick, invites his audiences to applaud this odd inversion—to take, as his films often invite them to take, a deep, emotional satisfaction in turning the tables on the bad guys. ("The Germans will be sickened by us," Raine tells his corps of Jewish savages early on.) But these bad guys were real, this history was real, and the feelings we have about them and what they did are real and have real-world consequences and implications. Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into carboncopies of Nazis, that makes Jews into "sickening" perpetrators? I'm not so sure. An alternative, and morally superior, form of "revenge" for Jews would be to do precisely what Jews have been doing since World War II ended: that is, to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the destruction that was visited upon them, precisely in order to help prevent the recurrence of such mass horrors in the future. Never again, the refrain goes. The emotions that Tarantino's new film evokes are precisely what lurk beneath the possibility that "again" will happen.
Jason Rosenhouse at Evolutionblog refers to this as "pure crap" and counters with a varient of the "why don't you just turn your brain off and enjoy it" argument:

Pure crap, and it is downright obscene to suggest that Tarantino has turned Jews in to carbon copies of the Nazis. Doing violence to them that wronged you is a far cry from trying to exterminate a race of people. Revenge fantasies may be ignoble (emphasis on “may”) but they are a deeply human reaction, and it is satisfying to fulfill them in fiction precisely because we know we can not fulfill them in real life.
It should be clear that this totally ignores Mendelsohn's argument, which is that a large number of people do not want to satisfy their revenge fantasies in fiction or find the notion of revenge fantasies to be deeply immoral. That's not to say that "doing violence to them that wronged you" doesn't have a certain moral sanction to it. Presumably nearly all of the people who refuse to gratify revenge fantasies would have judged the Allied war effort against the Third Reich to have been morally justified. The moral objection here is not to violence but to indiscriminate violence, the distinction is between waging war with a navy and waging war by paying off bands of pirates.

Or to reframe Mendelsohn's argument in a way that Evolutionblog might more readily understand, suppose that a major Hollywood studio made a film in which Islamic fighters infiltrate the United States, committ atrocities against Americans in gory, explicit detail, and then try to assassinate the President. Would Evolutionblog really be so eager to write this off as pure, harmless fun in this case?

* I agree with film critic James Bowman that critics should refer to this film with it's proper English spelling. My hypothesis is that this is how a Nazi who had encountered the "basterds" might attempt to spell "inglorious bastards" in English, perhaps after hearing the phrase spoken aloud. Is Tarantino implying that you're a Nazi by spelling his title this way?

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